By Karen Ross
A walk through any of California’s 700 certified farmers markets is all it takes to make the point: This state’s farms are something special. Our farmers are innovators —as creative as they are productive, to the tune of $42.6 billion worth of agricultural produce and commodities a year. But they have a lot of help right under their feet: the soil.
The California Museum in Sacramento (10th and O streets) features a new exhibit, sponsored by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and designed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, that gives us a unique peek underground. “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” is a 4,000-square-foot exhibit focused on educating 75,000 kindergartners through eighth-graders each year about the benefits of healthy soils.
We hope to see more and more young minds take an interest in soil, in agriculture and in the environmental sciences. As much as we know about soils and how they help us grow food, we will need a tremendous amount of new research and innovation to meet the nutritional needs of a growing global population.
Sacramento is a perfect place for this “Dig It!” exhibit. We are the “farm-to-fork capital,” and soil is the star of the show when it comes to farming. It’s what lets California farmers grow more than 400 agricultural commodities, from date palms in the high desert to veggies on the central coast, fruit trees in the foothills, wine grapes in Napa, rice up north and darned near everything else in the valleys in between.
In fact, California even has a state soil: San Joaquin soil from the great valley that is recognized as one of the richest agricultural regions in the world. With upper layers of brown loam and a subsoil of clay, this soil is well-suited for the valley’s irrigated crops such as almonds, oranges, grapes, wheat and rice. The great Central Valley boasts more than 500,000 acres of it.
Locals are used to it, but folks who come to California for the first time are awed by the variety, quality and abundance of our agriculture. Even a simple trip through our average supermarket produce section can be a jaw-dropper for someone who isn’t accustomed to our array of nutritious, tasty, healthy choices. Ask Sacramento chefs what makes this the perfect place for their restaurants to thrive, and it’s a sure bet they’ll rave about the long list of seasonal, local ingredients they have to choose from on a year-round basis.
That variety, that abundance are truly built from the ground up. Sandy or silty, loam or clay … our soils are as diverse as the food we grow in and on them. Farmers have always known that healthy soils are essential to produce good crops, but the advancing science of soils is giving us a whole new appreciation of soil diversity and soil health — and that science is giving us new tools to be better stewards of the land.
From irrigation technology that saves water to fertilizer research that protects our natural resources, science allows us to understand not just what we can grow from our soil but also what the soil itself requires to remain healthy and productive.
Soil isn’t just “dirt.” It’s a secret, underground ecosystem teeming with microbial life, nutrients, water. It is as varied and fascinating as California’s above-ground attractions, from its beaches to its mountains, valleys and deserts. It may take a scientist to see the connection, but that’s exactly what we’re hoping to find with the California Museum’s new “Dig It!” exhibit: New scientists who marvel at the magic happening right beneath our feet.
“Dig It!” is open now and will be on display at the California Museum through March 29. For more information, visit the California Museum website at www.californiamuseum.org/dig-it. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. (closed Mondays).
— Karen Ross is California’s agriculture secretary.